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NICE GUY FINISHES FIRST : After Years of Playing in the Shadows, Bluesman Buddy Guy Takes the Spotlight

April 22, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

There may be no musician more aptly named than Buddy Guy. Eric Clapton has cited the Chicago bluesman as not only "by far and without a doubt the best guitar player alive" but also as a great, warm human being. Onstage, he's such a crowd-pleaser that he often seems to be pulled in 10 directions at once.

He's the sort of family man who, when he has a day off touring, will fly home to mow the lawn or blow the snow. Once when he was a guest on a fellow bluesman's album, contractual reasons prohibited them from listing him as Buddy Guy, so they used the pseudonym "Friendly Chap."

But his amiability hasn't always worked in his favor. Despite his flamboyant showmanship onstage, the 56-year-old hasn't been the sort to put himself forward. In interviews, he would speak in reverent tones of the Chicago originators he'd worked with, such as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, or he would heap praise on the players he'd influenced like Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck or Stevie Ray Vaughan.

In the meantime, he'd gone 12 years without having a record out, and he says now that his earlier recordings were compromised by his kowtowing to producers who toned down the wild enthusiasm he brought to his live shows.

"They wouldn't let me record like I was doing in person with that wide-open blastin' distortion," Guy recalled last week from a tour stop in Portland, Ore. "They were telling me, 'Don't come in with the noise like that.' So I didn't know what the hell I was doing because I was always being told I didn't have nothing special, and that's all I knew. I always doubted myself."

He is feeling a little more confident now that he has been able to record a couple of albums the way he likes. The first, 1991's "Damn Right, I've Got the Blues," won him a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album, five blues-world W.C. Handy Awards, and gold-record status in several countries. There's little reason to doubt that his newly released "Feels Like Rain" will follow suit.

Actually, the live sound with which Guy is now connecting (he'll be at the Coach House tonight night with John Mayall) can be a blues purist's nightmare. He'll apply the same over-distorted volume and flashy speed that British players used to excess; he'll jump styles five times in a solo; he'll mug, clown and go through some of the most grandstanding stage antics since '50s New Orleans bluesman Guitar Slim. Yet, despite--or perhaps because of--his inattention to form, Guy's music comes across with a volcanic force, overwhelming listeners with his passion and love of the blues.

He was born in Lettsworth, La., and had only heard blues music on the radio when one day traveling musician Lightnin' Slim came through the farming town with an electric guitar, plugged his amp into an outlet outside the market, and commenced to playing "Boogie Chillen." The young Guy gave his allowance to Slim so he'd play it again. Guy soon got a guitar himself and started playing in nearby Baton Rouge.

In 1958, he took a bus to Chicago but, hungry and daunted by the big city, he decided almost immediately to return home. Fate interceded in the form of Muddy Waters, a salami sandwich and a late night jam session. Befriended by the elder blues master, Guy stayed in Chicago, playing and recording with Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and other Chess Records artists, as well as performing solo and establishing a long musical partnership with harmonica player Junior Wells.

Guy said he was unaware that the music was gaining notice beyond Chicago's South Side. The first inkling came when white kids Paul Butterfield and Mike Bloomfield started showing up in the clubs.

"The first thing we thought was that they must be cops, because there wasn't no white people listening to no blues then," Guy said. He soon found that there was a hot new generation of guitar slingers influenced by his work.

"The same time producers were trying to get me to stop sounding like me, it turns out Jimi and Eric and these other guys was picking little licks from me," he said, referring to Hendrix and Clapton, who at that time was playing with Mayall. "Eric and Beck both told me they were into country and Western until they first heard me on an album (the live "Folk Festival of the Blues") playing behind Muddy and Wolf. They said that turned them around."

Guy said it never struck him as out of place that white British kids would be emulating Chicago's tough music.

"If musicians tell you the truth, we're all doing somebody's music. I think music don't come in the length of hair or the color of skin. Music speaks in all languages and nationalities. I just think that any man that's interested in playing an instrument and loving it the way I love it--the way I'm sure those kids loved it--they're going to be pretty good at it.

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